Wednesday, July 15, 2015

An exercise on usability puts theory into practice

At the end of a semester-long course in digital journalism, I asked my students at the University of Navarra in Spain to say what they thought was the most interesting or useful part of the course. The survey was anonymous, so I give it some credibility.

The question was open-ended. The second-most-mentioned item was a class exercise I gave them in which they had to judge the navigability, usability, transparency, and other factors of any website they liked. This group exercise put theory into practice and developed their analytical skills.

(No. 1 was the video interviews with digital media entrepreneurs from Latin America. They are in Spanish and can be seen on my YouTube channel. Accompanying text in English is available elsewhere on this blog.)
The exercise took 45 minutes and followed a 45-minute lecture on the theory of Internet design, especially as it applied to taking advantage of mobile and social platforms.

First, I told the students that they were going to do an ungraded analysis of various characteristics of a website or application. They could do it in groups of three or four. I showed the students a list of about a dozen websites that I knew were popular but told them they could also choose any that they liked.

Second, I displayed a slide on the overhead projector and told them I wanted them to grade the website or app on the characteristics listed (a translation is on the image below). They could submit their analysis to me on paper, by email or by a document after class.

This was the guide on the overhead projector that students referred to in the exercise.

Criteria for the analysis

1. Linking. Did the website or app take advantage of the possibilities of hypertext to link the user to relevant, useful information. Did it take advantage of the non-linear characteristics of Internet storytelling to let the user decide where to begin. Was it easily scannable.

2. Interactivity.  Was this Internet medium truly interacting with the audience and taking advantage of two-way communication. Was it easy to comment. Was it easy to share. Did the producers of the content interact with the users.

3. Multimedia. Did this Internet medium offer truly integrated multimedia experiences in which a story was told in different ways in different media. Or was it simply text and photos, or text with some videos. Were there new genres such as slideshows with sound or podcasts. Did it offer interactive maps and databases for users to engage more deeply with the content.

4. Multiplatform. Was this Internet medium usable and valuable in many different platforms, such as desktop, laptop, tablet, smartphone, social media, databases.

5. Navigability. When a user landed on this website or app, were the tabs that display categories understandable. Were the categories appealing and relevant to the content. Was it easy to move between categories. Was the site quick to respond to clicks.

6. Design. Was the site or app attractive in terms of color and typography. Did the design work well on multiple devices. Was the design "responsive" to the different platforms so as to optimize display of the contents.

7. Content and headlines. Communication basics. Was the material engaging. Since the students were picking sites that they liked, they mostly approved, but some offered critiques.

8. Transparency and usability. Here I asked the students to see how easy it was to obtain certain information about the app or website.

How easy was it to identify or find out...

  1. ...what is this Internet medium about. What are the purpose or mission or objectives. 
  2. ...who are the owners or directors or producers or authors of the Internet medium.
  3. do you advertise, what does it cost, is there a media kit, who is the audience.
  4. ...what is the address, telepone, fax, country (not always easy to identify in Spanish- or English-speaking countries)
  5. ...does anyone answer the telephone or respond to an email.
  6. ...does anyone respond to a Tweet, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, or other message or outreach.
  7. ...other criteria.

Of the 50-some students present, 15 groups submitted analyses. During the time they were working, the engagement level was very high, despite the fact that this assignment was ungraded.

The exercise had students using all of their devices -- phones, tablets, laptops -- to compare the usability of sites and apps on various devices.

The students got to apply the theory they had been learning, and I interacted with the various groups in class.

Some groups turned in their analysis immediately, on paper. Others sent an email at the end of class and others developed a document that they submitted later that day. The analyses ranged from the detailed to the superficial.

I gave feedback to each of the 15 groups and raised questions about their analyses. It could be that the feedback alone raised the value of the exercise in the students's minds.

I should point out that in many courses at the university level in Spain, a professor gives a lecture and the only element of the final grade is the student's performance on a final exam. We are changing this at the University of Navarra and are incorporating more in-class activities, following the model of the flipped classroom.

Students themselves are accustomed to the model of lectures and a final exam, and some are resistant to the change. But for me, the experience of classroom activities is much more rewarding. The students learn more and surely retain more.


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